Laboratory Safety

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Laboratory Safety

Smoke detector with 20 dB pad... contributed by Dara!

New for May 2010! Because of the way safety is treated at Big Companies, it seems no one takes it seriously. If you have a legitimate concern, it is often lost in the noise of mandatory training, and safety log books which score who had both shoelaces tied.

But from a personal point of view, you should be aware of what can happen, and work to prevent accidents and catastrophes.

There are many ways to hurt or kill yourself in a modern electronics laboratory. You can shock yourself, cut yourself, burn yourself, radiate yourself, poison yourself, or get cancer or lose your eyesight. You can even asphyxiate yourself!

Here we'll start by telling you a few horror stories, and maybe later we'll weigh in on you how to prevent them. In the mean time, use critical thinking skills instead of checklists to stay safe!

Horror stories


A Ph.D. engineer because convinced that the lab's AC voltage must be drifting. Otherwise, how to explain that funny power meter reading? So he took a handheld multimeter and jammed the two prongs into an outlet strip. He noted the voltage a few times later in the day, then forgot about it. Later, someone needed the voltmeter, and not wanting to disturb the PhD's "setup", merely pulled the leads from the meter and walked away. Care to guess what happened when someone needed a clip lead the next day?


Once a janitor was moving glass jugs of TCE (a known carcinogen) late at night. One of the jugs fell and smashed. He cut his hand while picking up the glass. And he used a mop to clean up the spill, flushing it down the nearest john.

Sharp things

A technician grew tired of people stealing his best tweezers and knives, so he hid them under his microscope. One day he hid a round Exacto knife there, and it rolled out so that just the blade was protruding from the desktop. He accidentally cut an artery in his hand on this blade, and Clean Harbors was called to clean up the bloody mess. He still has trouble playing the guitar. Not sure if the accident was related to that problem, but it left a huge scar and he was out of work for a month...


A temperature test was ongoing, and the DUT was stubbornly avoiding the lower temperature. A second LN2 gas bottle was brought in to flood the chamber, as the first one had been exhausted. By the time the lower temperature was reached, everyone was getting very sleepy in this lab that had no windows and the door was tightly shut. An alert technician pulled out an oxygen depletion monitor, took a reading, then told everyone to get out quickly.

Another adventure using CO2 gas had everyone in the lab with high heart rate, wondering if the coffee had been spiked.


Something bad happened in a clean room, and it was evacuated. A Geiger counter was put to use, and a technician was told to enter one air lock, proceed across the entire lab and exit the other air lock while taking readings. When he got the the other side, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, as he encountered no radiation. Then someone noticed that the counter, which was not used regularly, was missing its battery...


Did you ever notice a ceiling fan making a lot of noise? Sometimes its because of a bad bearing. Bad bearings cause heat, which causes fire and smoke. Sometimes you learn the hard way that a noisy fan is "not my problem", especially when the sprinklers come on.

Here's a fire story from Adam... thanks!

One day an engineer walked into a lab where a dozen or so people typically work. He said "are you guys incinerating this shroud for a reason or do you want me to go ahead and put that out?" Then put a out a fire. Someone had a circuit on a hot-plate. Probably curing epoxy or something. They pulled a fan shroud over it to suck out the fumes. The fan shroud was spring-loaded, positionable, and LOOSE. Oh yeah, and made of plastic. It had fallen onto the hot-plate, melted and burst into flames. Since the fan was on, it was sucking up all the smoke and blowing it out the roof. This: a) made it impossible to smell something nearby burning and be warned by one's senses and b) provided the fire with a continuous fresh supply supply of air thus "fanning the flames." There were five people with their backs next to the fire completely unaware. Good job guys!

The Burning Bush

Coming to work one day, an engineer found a bush on fire outside the side entrance he favored. This was caused by smokers who had been kicked out of the building, and were careless in extinguishing their cancer sticks. The engineer found the nearest water fire extinguisher, pulled the pin, and put out the bush. The bush has been grateful since then, and grew back to its original size and then some, after a few years of looking sad. The reward that the engineer received was to fill out seemingly endless paperwork, on the incident that caused him to discharge a fire extinguisher.

What do all of these horror stories have in common? They were all witnessed by the Unknown Editor!

Here's some contributions from Gerry, who also is helping us with a plating page:

Our plating shop looks like a college chem lab these days, BUT 15 years ago in the old building, there's that aging cabinet on the wall, collecting the odd jars of chemicals, trials, experiments, acids, bases, liquids, powders, really god knows what. Which is fine, until the screw or two that had actually hit a stud decide to pull out and the thing comes down in a bubbling, fuming mess. The moon suit guys came in for that one and we ended up with a couple air bottle / mask packs (near scuba gear) on the wall, just in case.

So when we moved into the new building six years ago I personally installed 2X6 blocking in the framed wall where we hung cabinets, take a tow truck....

In industry, 30 years ago, delivery truck is nosed into our work area, simple roller conveyor line ahead of the truck. Truck's in the way, driver's off in the break room maybe. So a kid jumps in and starts the truck to move it. Only he drives an automatic, doesn't even know clutches exist, and 30 years ago a truck sitting in first gear will happily crank and start without pushing the clutch. Truck lurches forward, wiry guy right in front luckily jumps over the roller line, but the open truck door catches a post and breaks the driver kid's leg in a place or three. Ouch, hate it when that happens.

I bet those $2 switches that require the clutch to be depressed have paid for themselves

Got some horror stories? Send them in!


Author : Unknown Editor